I’m going to spend my reflection talking about an individual I had met when I first started working at my public library, Martin County Library System in Florida. Everyone referred to him as Cortland or Doc. People called him Doc because he served 2 years in Vietnam has a medic and surgical assistant. He was an older individual around his 60’s, very slender, tanned, came to the library every day to research Egyptian archaeology and he was homeless…….by choice.
I never spoke with Cortland the first year I worked at the library, only observed him from afar. He was usually around the reference desk asking for assistance from our reference librarian, Richard. I’ll be honest, everyone thought he was a little weird, as he did talk to himself often. Many of my co-workers were glad that he always went to Richard for help and not them. However, one day while I was covering the desk with Richard, I had my first interaction with Cortland. He was approaching the reference desk and Richard knew what he was coming up to him for. It was 2009 and March Madness had officially started and Cortland would come in his usual time and would have Richard get him on one of our public computer and pull up stats for him to review. He apparently was a basketball enthusiast…….and so was I. So, as he was approaching the desk I offered to get Cortland a computer and pull up stats because Richard already had his hands tied with other patrons. I started some small talk with Cortland, who I don’t think was too pleased with me helping him. I started mentioning some players who I knew were potential draft picks for the NBA and even showed Cortland some live games to watch and some other visual highlights, instead of the same stats he was looking at everyday……………. the rest is history. We became good friends. As soon as he would come into the library, he would stop by the circulation desk, where I was usually stationed and we would catch up for 15 minutes about different players and teams. He even started coming in with a basketball. My co-workers were a bit baffled by this relationship we formed and became a little less weirded out by him.
Cortland shared a lot things about himself. How he was once “The Winston Man”, a pro boxer, a model and played college basketball with some very famous players. I didn’t always believe everything he told me. As much as I loved talking to him, I didn’t think he was entirely there, but it didn’t bother me that I thought he was making half of it up…. he was just trying to impress me and I loved our conversations.
Sometime in December, Cortland stopped showing up. This was odd since he would show up every day we were opened. I remember Richard and I checking newspaper obituaries and calling around different hospitals to check of his whereabouts. Two weeks later, Richard found out Cortland had been admitted to the Veterans hospital with a pneumonia. It was a relief to have found him! However, a few days later, Cortland had checked himself out against his doctor’s request. As I mentioned before, Cortland was homeless by choice. Vietnam did some terrible things to our soldiers. I think for Cortland, he had never liked being told how to live so he chose to live his life as free as he could. Two days after he had checked out of the Veterans hospital, Cortland was found dead on a sidewalk. It was Christmas 2010.
I still remember the day I found out he had passed. It brought me to tears. I couldn’t believe he was gone. I had gotten so use to him coming every day, chatting with him about basketball and such and for his presence to be taken away from our library was truly tough.
A couple months after his passing, his daughter and brother from upstate New York came down to Florida to visit our library and to see where Cortland had spent so much of his time. Through Cortland’s daughters Facebook page, I had found out that everything Cortland had told me about being “The Winston Man,” a model, boxer, and college basketball player had in fact been true. I was talking to a legend. A man who had done so much. I was privileged to have known him and still miss him very much till this day.
I chose to share this story for my reflection because Cortland is one of many whose stories belong in the books on our shelves. He was a tale worth telling. Most of all, he was a man who taught me compassion. Some of our patrons might be odd, but boy do they have stories.
“We are the heart of our communities and that only works because the people who run libraries give of themselves. They do it knowing that there will be hard days and disappointment, budget fights, and individuals whom they may not be able to reach. The best librarians make that emotional investment because they believe in the institution and the communities they serve.”